Ebbing bass rumbles and guitar atmospherics commence Black Light, before dueling harmonic lines enter and a kick-and-bass rhythm jabs in bars of 5s and a 3. This time signature endures for the next seven minutes while the track evolves in small yet regular increments – a rim click enters in the fourth minute, a guitar riff in the fifth; the rhythmic pace increases in the sixth, and the key drops in the eighth. By its close, “Enneagram” is clamourous and frenetic, but still somehow controlled and restrained – a machine with myriad cogs, levels and belts whose individual noises and movements cumulatively create something exacting.
Now on their third LP, the ‘sonic architects’ in SONAR employ a deliberately reductive style of composition, adopting the premise that simple ideas organically generate complexity. The four musicians regulate many aspects of their playing, eschewing 4/4 rhythms, ignoring all effects but reverb, and tuning guitars to tritones. Furthermore, the two guitarists limit their chords and melodies as far as possible to the harmonics of their alternative tuning. It’s a whole-band equivalent of a prog rock drummer realising that the gong and third floor tom might be straying into excess, and stripping back to a three-piece kit. ‘Self-imposed limitations can give you a surprisingly strong sense of freedom,’ so explains founder Stephan Thelan, who studied music with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. A paradox, arguably; a truism, certainly – musicians and indeed people in all walks of life yearn for choice, but are often paralysed by it.
The limited tonal range heightens the sense of rhythmic confusion – a simple idea that generates complexity. The guitar/bass riff that starts album highlight “String Geometry” is a rally between just two notes, and as such presents no obvious, repeating phrase. The lead guitar alternates between ostinatos in 5s and 4s, changing the emphasis of the underlying rhythm and so further obfuscating our comprehension. For three minutes the piece remains thus, our attention held while the entire band wields just six or seven different notes in total. In general, the drums either stick to one of the rhythms and so emphasise its disparity with the other(s), else they seek to unite everything with complementary polyrhythms. In “Orbit 5.7”, for example, the kick cleaves to the bass pattern while the hi hat initially follows the spacious – quite separate – guitar. The cymbals then develop a busier rhythm of their own, leaving the guitar to fend for itself. Eventually a tremolo guitar line provides some rare texture, uniting all under a comforting blanket of atmosphere.
Like many genre labels, ‘progressive rock’ is often stamped on bands that simply adopt a style of playing or composition that evokes a specific era/forebear. Fittingly, SONAR are described as a group ‘whose purview extends beyond progressive rock into contemporary classicism’. Although a conventional four-piece group that leans heavily on aging prog acts such as King Crimson and early Steve Reich – and this certainly shows with their extensive use of minor intervals, SONAR embrace their limitations and influences to expand the reach of what is possible. In doing so, they have created something singular: the Black Light is both complex and minimal. I would love for them to now explore a wider tonal palette to allow for an evolving mood that engages as much as their rhythmic skulduggery. (Chris Redfearn)